musician.educator.musicologist

on A New Endpin

Added on by Taylor Smith.

Last year, I wrote about how I am always tinkering with my bass playing. That blog was about tuning my bass in fifths (instead of fourths like a “normal” human being). Now I have gone and done another weird thing. To but it bluntly, I drilled a hole in my bass, and I am excited about it.

$95 (labor) and a trip to San Juan Capistrano later and I am now part of the weird endpin club.

Pretty weird looking, I know. 

Pretty weird looking, I know. 

I started playing with a bent metal endpin back in 2005. This was out of curiosity toward François Rabbath’s funky method and posture. I had seen a few of these weird endpins coming out of the bottom of basses at an angle (which traces back to Rabbath) which got me curious. So, I bought a custom-bent endpin to see what that world was all about. The bent pin is supposed to be something like “training wheels” before you go all the way with a Laborie endpin installation. My training wheels lasted eleven years.

The whole idea behind this monkey business is to make the bass a bit more ergonomically friendly. As you would probably guess, the bass is a pretty awkward instrument, so bassists—especially small ones like me—often have to make compromises when tackling the thing. A lot of the difficulties can be solved by playing seated on a stool, but now you have to carry a stool around with you everywhere (let alone an amp, stand, etc.). But, sitting has its drawbacks as well.

Anyway, this new endpin is a pretty good solution to some of the ergonomic challenges the bass presents. Among other things, it puts the bass in a more “horizontal” position, similar to what you get when you are sitting, or, better yet, to the position a cellist achieves. It also makes the bass feel lighter because its contact point with the floor is closer to its center of gravity. The biggest (and only, as far as I can see) downside is that you have to drill—have a professional drill, that is—a hole in your prized instrument. Granted, that is a pretty big deal, which is one of the reasons I put it off for ten years.

Will this make me a better player when all is said and done? Maybe. But, I think it will make me more likely to practice as I am liking the direction things are headed with this new setup; I have already made some adjustments in my playing (for the better), so I think some good things are coming.

Here is how the whole thing is supposed to work, as demonstrated by the master himself. 

Here is how the whole thing is supposed to work, as demonstrated by the master himself. 

on A Bike Project

Added on by Taylor Smith.

We currently own two cars—well, the bank owns them for another year or two—but had only one for quite a while. We moved into our current house almost exactly seven years ago. We had only one car, then.

As we were looking for a house, the feasibility of commuting to work on a bike was one of the things we tried to keep in mind. This wouldn’t be a deal breaker, per se, but it was on our list of things to consider. Our house is about eight miles from my office, which is obviously very bikable (though there is a sizable hill between here and there, so it isn’t as easy as it sounds). It took me a while before I actually started riding to work after we moved, though I did eventually do it as my normal way of getting to/from work (and other places).

But, as the kids grew, their various activities and commitments made the one-car thing pretty challenging. Thus, we bought a second car (another Prius!) a year and a half ago.

I swore up and down that the new car would not mean that I would stop riding my bike. Alas, while I didn’t stop riding to work entirely, my rides became much fewer and farther between. I used to ride to work three or four days a week, I have since been riding once or twice a month, at best. I came up with all sorts of excuses, most of which seemed perfectly legit. They probably were legit, but they were excuses that I would have dealt with when we had only one car.

I like riding a bike. One time, when I was 17 or 18, I got on my bike and rode toward the mountains. My plan was to turn around after about an hour or whenever I just felt tired enough that I needed to turn around. I ended up riding all the way to Idyllwild, a distance of 22 miles each way, with an ascent of 4,000+ feet—not too shabby for not even really planning on doing this when I left my house. I rode around on a mountain bike in the hills south of Hemet a lot when I was a teenager. I tried to keep up with mountain biking when we lived right near some nice trails in Rancho San Diego, and I always had a good time when I went for rides.

Anyway, our congregation at church is organizing in a service project wherein we are providing recent Sudanese and Iraqi refugees (those that Donald Trump and his cronies couldn’t stop) with bicycles. These folks need help with transportation to their jobs (’cause, you know, they are secret-terrorist leeches that only pretend to have jobs), and bikes can be really helpful. You, and I, and so many others have old, halfway-functioning bikes just lying around, and these people (un-extreme-vetted “Radical Islamic Extremists”) could benefit so much from them. I am excited about this project.

Just for kicks, here are some photos of my bikes. Some lucky probably-really-a-terrorist will be getting, after I give it a little TLC. (My commuter bike is still in really great shape, and I do ride it often enough that I am keeping it around. The mountain bike has only been ridden once in the three years just hanging in my garage; this is a perfect candidate for donation.)

I am planning on riding a lot more from this point forward. Please keep me accountable.

Old Blue

Old Blue

Main Wheels

Main Wheels

on Musicology

Added on by Taylor Smith.

I am a musicologist. I have a PhD in the subject and an MA and BMA in music. So, you would think that I would be interested, even intrigued, by the stuff I see being published and presented in the various musicological journals and conferences. You would be wrong (mostly). When I see the schedules of the major—or minor, for that matter—conferences, or see the articles being published, I am often baffled. Just looking at the titles makes me scratch my head; I don’t even understand some of the words (often words that end in “-ality,” “-ism,” or “-ography”), let alone what in world these folks are talking about.

I haven’t really tried to publish anything, but I have submitted abstracts to variety of conferences. The business of getting stuff published, or being invited to present at conferences, can be pretty brutal. There are literally hundreds of people submitting proposals and abstracts despite the fact that there is often only room for a handful. I have been invited to present at two small conferences, which is a decent track record for someone of my stature. But when I hear the “big shots” give their presentations, or I try to read through the recent publications, I feel like I am trying to understand a completely different world, like I am actually at a zoology conference or something.

Here are a few examples of articles/presentations out in the world right now:

  • “Anthologizing Rock and Roll: Rhino Records and the Repackaging of Rock History” (I think I get what this one is about, but it still seems like the presenter is over complicating the title, just ’cause)
  • “Recomposing National Identity: Four Transcultural Readings of Liszt’s Marche hongroise d'après Schubert
  • “Hearing King David in Early Modern France: Politics, Prayer, and Louis XIII’s Musique de la Chambre”
  • Romantic Anatomies of Performance

In the spirit of fairness, I understand the words in these titles, and I kind of understand what these talks/articles/books might be about, but I still don’t “get” it. “Transcultural readings?” “Romantic anatomies?” I suppose it is possible that the stuff I have written and presented comes across as strange to others, so maybe I am just out of the loop with mainstream musicology.

Generally speaking, I am not incredibly interested in publishing stuff. I am fine with teaching being my primary gig. Once I (finally!) finished my degree a year and a half ago, I felt like taking a break from virtually all hardcore academic stuff. But, every once in a while, I get the itch to dive in deeper, to re-enter the highbrow world. That is when I start looking more closely at what is going on in the American Musicological Society or the Society for American Music, which is when I start to feel a little lost.

I am not sure what any of this means. Maybe better musicologists could help me figure that out.

on the 2016 Presidential Election, take 1

Added on by Taylor Smith.

I am sitting at the library while my kids scour the children’s section for drawing, craft, and origami books—despite the fact that said books seem to cause a lot of frustration (and yelling) around our house. A few minutes ago, an announcement came over the speakers about “Let’s Speak Arabic Story Time;” it started five minutes ago. My kids don’t speak Arabic, nor do I (though I kind of want to learn), but I am glad that we live in a community with “Let’s Speak Arabic Story Time.” From where I am sitting, I can see shelves marked, “Arabic,” “Persian,” “Español,” and “Other Non-English” (it’s kind of funny that the “Español” sign is the only one not in English). I am comforted by the fact that my local library considers it important to include selections in these diverse languages, and in the children’s section no less.

But, while I sit here, I can’t stop thinking about yesterday’s Presidential election. There is a family sitting at the table near me speaking in a mixture of Arabic and English. Knowing a bit about those in my community, it is likely that this family came to the US within the last fifteen years as political refugees, fleeing sectarian oppression and violence. And then, there is me: an upper-middle-class heterosexual Christian white male, born in the United States to parents whose parents’ parents’ parents were also born here; I am sitting here wondering what they are thinking, how they are reacting to yesterday’s surprise. A large chunk of my fellow Americans decided to elect a man who opened his campaign by stating that only a small “some” Mexican immigrants are “good people,” while the others are drug dealers, rapists, and the like (whether or not he said this about people immigrating legally or not makes no difference as far as I am concerned); they decided to give a man who called for banning an entire religion from entering the country the power to actually do so; a sizable swath of my fellow Americans asked to have a President whose campaign promises are, among other things, to restrict the freedom of the press and to increase the use of torture against POWs. I wonder what my neighbors think of me. Do they assume I voted for this? Do they assume that I want these things? It would be easy, even logical, for them to do so. Evidently, a lot of white folks like me did vote this way and do want some of this stuff.

Donald Trump has made statements that have put my neighbors into a state of fear. Whether it is real or not, members of my community, just like this family across the room, are now living in a country they feel has rejected them. Instead of mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers that simply want to go to the library, many people in the US have decided that they might be America-hating terrorists charading as nice people; they might be hiding someone among them who has evil plans. And, the United States electorate has decided to elect a man who also thinks this. Understandably so, this terrifies them. It terrifies me.

While I always knew that, technically speaking, Donald Trump could be the next President of the United States, I didn’t think it would actually happen. Such a thing seemed simply unfathomable to me. I recognize that I live on the west coast and that I work in an environment that skews pretty heavily to the left, which means that my personal political/social views are colored by that environment. The fact that Donald Trump’s views are as popular as they are comes as a (very big) surprise to me. So, when I woke up to see that Donald Trump had won enough electoral votes to become the next President, I was stunned. Shocked. Confused.

I think I know two people who were really excited about Donald Trump from Day One. I am pretty sure that I have a fair number of acquaintances (and family members) that voted for Donald Trump, grudgingly, and I think they did so out of a combination of party loyalty, a great distaste for Hillary Clinton, and/or a fierce allegiance to certain causes (e.g. abortion rights, gay marriage, etc.). These folks plugged their noses and voted for what they felt was the “lesser of two evils,” feeling that whatever warts Trump had were of lesser importance than these bigger issues. Neither of these situations are ones I can really understand. In fact, almost any rationale for electing a man whose platform is built on his brand of pseudo-nativism, or who has slung gendered insults as readily as he has, is lost on me; for me, that type of rhetoric is dangerous, irresponsible, and un-ignorable.

I have gone through a lot of emotions in the past 48 hours. Now, I think I am just sad. I am sad that the kids who live across the street (literally) told my kids that they don’t know what is going to happen to them (they, their mother, and grandparents are all from Iraq, living here after being pushed out of their homeland). While these kids might be misinformed about what Mr. Trump has said, or about what is actually going to happen, it is horrible that there is even a question about this. I am sitting here feeling embarrassed for being an American, for being a part of the collective electorate that elected Donald Trump to be its leader. Sure, it is possible that things look worse now than they may turn out to be, but the fact that I have to sit here wondering if Americans really are as _____ as his election implies we are is distressing. The fact that I have to worry if this family at the library think I voted to make them feel less safe is a horrible feeling. I can’t even begin to fathom what this must be like for them. There weren’t any candidates who made a point of using upper-middle-class white heterosexual men as bogeymen scapegoats, so I have nothing to fear for my own safety or livelihood.

My daughter wrote this letter almost immediately after she found out that Donald Trump had been elected:

Dear Mr. Trump, Please do not build a wall around America. Some of my closest friends are refugees, and I’ll be very sad if you build a wall. Please don’t. My friends would be devistated (sic), and I will be too. I care very much about them, and want them to be happy. Again, please, please, please don’t build a wall. Sincerely, ___ Smith. 

Dear Mr. Trump, Please do not build a wall around America. Some of my closest friends are refugees, and I’ll be very sad if you build a wall. Please don’t. My friends would be devistated (sic), and I will be too. I care very much about them, and want them to be happy. Again, please, please, please don’t build a wall. Sincerely, ___ Smith. 

Before you go, there, the idea that Donald Trump might “build a wall around America” was not put in her head by me or my wife … this came from her hearing his words, mixing them around with her own 11-year-old ideas, and interpreting what this might mean through the lens of her own world experience. Sure, she has some of the facts wrong, but I don’t think she is misinterpreting the sentiment.

Maybe it is not for you, but this is terrifying and depressing for me. ’Merica!

on Dreams: Strange Things

Added on by Taylor Smith.

I woke up the other day after what might be the coolest dream I have ever had. As usual, nothing really made sense; the “plot” began in the middle, so to speak, with no real explanation as to how and why I was in the situation. I wonder if context doesn’t really exist in our dreams.

The first thing I remember was sitting in the recording studio along with Miles Davis and his band c. 1969. I have no idea idea how I got there, or why I was there–I simply “woke up,” so to speak, in the room while the band was playing. They were recording tracks for Bitches Brew, though I don’t know if it was called that, yet. The band was a little smaller than on the album, as I only remember there being one pianist (though I think it was Henrie Hancock, who wasn’t in the band anymore ... ). Strangely, I was aware of this problem during the dream, as I remember thinking, “Where is Chick Corea?” (Though I didn’t seem to have a problem with Herbie Hancock playing piano.) There was only one drummer as well.

At a few points during the session the band members talked about what they were doing, how “odd” it was. They were wondering where it was going, how each track would unfold. I got the sense that they really were “experimenting” with ideas and were a little lost, even doubting the direction they were going. Miles seemed pretty sure of what he is doing, but the others were kind of scared as to what this might do to their careers. I thought (in the dream), “Guys! This is amazing! What you are doing is going to change just about everything! This album is often called one of the best and most important in all of jazz! Seriously, just listen to this stuff!” I couldn’t say this, of course, because that would be weird, telling these guys that I was from the future ... apparently my dream-state logic has no hang ups about traveling to and from the past, but alerting others to this strange phenomenon was too weird. Still, the others in the room were clearly aware of my presence, as they looked my way several times and reacted to some of my reactions.

Perhaps the best part of all of this was when Dave Holland decided, who knows why, decided to let me sit in on bass. Yes, was playing bass alongside Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock (even though he shouldn’t have been there), Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter. I showed him the ostinato that ended up in the final versions of the title track, “Bitches Brew.”

Then, I woke up. That’s the worst part of cool dreams. The good news, though, is that the first thing I did that morning was listen to Bitches Brew, and the dream version of me was right, it is amazing. (Don’t worry, I listened through headphones so my wife didn’t have to listen. I am pretty sure she would hate  it.)

 

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10 Deserted-Island Recordings

Added on by Taylor Smith.

I posted this list on different website last week, but thought I should also put it here ... (I have actually changed a few of my choices, and I think this is a better list.)

Here are my 10 deserted-island albums, in no particular order: 

  1. Kid A by Radiohead
  2. Music for Airports by Brian Eno
  3. Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys
  4. Jordi Savall/Ton Koopman's recording of Bach's sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord
  5. Yo-Yo Ma's 1997 recording of Bach's cello suites
  6. John Eliot Gardiner/English Baroque Soloists' recording of Mozart's Symphony No. 41
  7. Post by Björk
  8.  Hunky Dory by David Bowie
  9.  ( ) by Sigur Rós
  10. Odelay  by Beck

I am well aware that this lets most of my biases show. Be that as it may, this is what I would take with me if I was forced to leave today. 

Cuyamaca College Rock, Pop, and Soul Ensemble performing Abbey Road

Added on by Taylor Smith.

As most folks know, I direct the Rock, Pop, and Soul Ensemble at Cuyamaca College (in addition to wearing a bunch of other hats). Our most recent concert was on April 29; we played Abbey Road from start to finish (plus a few extra songs from 1969). I am not much of a bragger, but the band sounded really good. You can have a listen/look below.

 

Enjoy.

On Using an iPad for Everything

Added on by Taylor Smith.

I did something kind of drastic two weeks ago. With all of the “newness” that goes along with Christmas and the beginning of the year, I got caught up in rethinking a few things. One of the things that I thought about was my computer/technology situation. I have had a 13" MacBook Air since August 2012, and it has been a great computer, probably the best computer I have ever owned. But, in thinking through how I work, and the type of work I do the majority of time, I realized that I didn’t really need that computer anymore. Most of what I do on a daily basis is writing, research, and reading; in each of these cases, my MacBook was overkill.

With this realization, and a bit of old-fashioned American consumerism, I decided to get rid of my MacBook Air and my iPad Air, and replace them with an iPad Pro. In selling both of these devices, I was able to raise the funds to buy an iPad Pro without actually spending any new money (which was my hope, of course). Since I am always interested in “downsizing,” I liked the idea of swapping out two devices for one. If I ever ended up in a situation that I needed something more powerful than an iPad Pro, I figured that I have an iMac both at home and in my office, and if I needed something really powerful, I could always use the recording studio at the college—heavy multi-track recording is the only that comes to mind that might require lots of horsepower, and I would rather go into the college’s studio to do that anyway.

I’ve told a few people, extended family members included, that most people don’t need anything more than an iPad. The overwhelming majority of the things we all use computers to do, can be done just as well, sometimes better, on a device like an iPad. So, I decided that it was time for me to “practice what I preach,” so to speak, and do the majority of my computer-ing on an iPad. Now, since I was replacing my laptop, I felt that I should probably go with the highest-end of the iPad family. Thus, the 128GB iPad Pro.

Just about everything I write into the foreseeable future will be done right here, on my iPad. Ditto for all of my research, reading, and other day-to-day stuff. I am already finding things that I like better about working this way.

Intercultural Music Conference - 2016

Added on by Taylor Smith.

UCSD is hosting the 2016 Intercultural Music Conference on February 26–28. I just got word that I will be presenting a paper. So, if you are really bored, you can come hear it ... though you would have to be REALLY bored to want to, as my presentation is likely to be pretty boring (for most) as well. Here is the abstract:  

 “Sweet Trinidad:” Imitation and Representation in Van Dyke Parks’ Discover America

Some six years after completing his first album, Van Dyke Parks released Discover America, a collection of cover songs. More specifically, Discover America consists almost entirely of songs originating from Trinidad and Tobago. And, the majority of the songs’ lyrics revolve around descriptions of the United States and American culture, through the eyes of Trinidadian songwriters from the 1920s, thirties, and forties. Thus, Discover America is an American musician’s interpretation of  various Trinidadian musicians’ representations of the United States. As such, Discover America is an exploration of cross-cultural pollination in both topical and stylistic terms. Parks’ arrangements show a sensitivity to Calypso’s intricacies, though they are rarely simple re-orchestrations of Calypso tunes.

This paper examines Parks’ imitations of Trinidadian music alongside the lyrics’ representations of American culture. Van Dyke Parks’ arrangements seem to be an attempt at representing the original artists’ ideas about America juxtaposed against his own interpretations of Trinidadian culture. Though Parks is clearly a fan of Calypso, his orchestrational choices reveal underlying assumptions about the style and region. This paper investigates the ways Parks portrays Trinidadian music (and, thereby, Trinidadian culture). Additionally, special attention is paid to the ways Parks reacts to the original songs’ descriptions of American history and culture. In short, this discussion is an exploration of intercultural (mis)understanding and representation as presented in Discover America.

____

You can get more info the conference itself by visiting their website

____

Even if you won’t come to the conference, you really should listen to Discover America. Like most things Van Dyke Paks, it is great.

Checking In ... Oh, and David Bowie

Added on by Taylor Smith.

It has been quite a while since I have had much to say around here. I wish it was otherwise. It is kind of strange, but this is my first semester since finishing my dissertation, but it feels like it has been the most stressful in a few years. Maybe all of the “other” stress I was kind of setting aside during my research/writing is now fully present. Maybe I am more present now, and am seeing/feeling things I wasn’t before. Whatever it is, I have been having a hard time keeping much afloat, beside my teaching, since late-August.

So, do I have anything big to say right now? Not really. I do find writing to be kind or therapeutic, and I have some ideas of stuff I’d like to put “out there,” but I am not quite ready. Mostly, I just have a few loose ends to tie, after which I hope I will be able to post some interesting things.

But, something far more exciting is coming up in January ... David Bowie is releasing a new album! This, this, is something truly worth getting worked up about. Blackstar is scheduled for release on January 8. (Which just happens to be his 69th birthday. 69! At 33, I am not half as cool as David Bowie, and he is pushing 70!) So, here is a “teaser” for the new album. You can pre-order now in the iTunes Store. Enjoy!

Album Review: The Phosphorescent Blues by Punch Brothers

Added on by Taylor Smith.

Magically, I don’t even remember how, Punch Brothers’ album The Phosphorescent Blues (January 2015, Nonesuch) fell into my consciousness. I kind of remember seeing the album cover, and thinking that it was pretty interesting looking, though I am not sure if that was the first time I came into contact with the album. Whatever the circumstances, once I sat down to listen to The Phosphorescent Blues, I was truly awestruck.

I was only vaguely familiar with Punch Brothers before finding The Phosphorescent Blues, though I was a bit more cognizant of Chris Thile. Still, I wasn’t all that familiar with Thile’s old band, Nickel Creek; I knew of them, but that was about it. I haven’t really taken the time to listen to Punch Brothers’ back catalog, so I can’t really speak much to The Phosphorescent Blues’ placement within their œuvre, but if this album is any indication of what I would find, I really should find some time to listen.

(Some of ) The Pieces

The Phosphorescent Blues starts with a sweeping, ten-minute piece, called “Familiarity.” This one song sounds like five, changing tempos, grooves, keys, and overall affect at least half-a-dozen times. Except for the fact that “Familiarity’s” orchestra consists of mandolin, violin, banjo, acoustic guitar, and double bass, it sounds like something straight off of a Peter Gabriel-era Genesis album smashed together with Pet Sounds. I don’t care much for prog-rock, generally, but anything that even pretends to imitate Pet Sounds is bound to catch my attention. (Remember how I wrote my PhD dissertation on Brian Wilson?)

It seems like most bands with as many chops as Punch Brothers can’t resist the temptation to turn their music into nothing but a “shred fest” (hence, one of the reasons I am not so into prog-rock), but Punch Brothers largely avoids this. “Familiarity” comes with an abundance of virtuosic flair, but it is never simply virtuosity-for-virtuosity’s-sake.

One of my favorite moments in this song is when the band imitates a tape or digital-delay effect. The players hit a chord and repeat it precisely, dropping the volume each time. On the third repeat of this figure the banjo breaks form and plays a repetitive melody; on the fifth repeat the mandolin enters with an intricate muted rhythmic groove. Not much later, Thile et al. break into a gorgeous a cappella section, one that sounds somewhere between The Beach Boys and Palestrina. Really, it is stunning.

At 6:00, “Familiarity” turns into an entirely different song: a subdued ballad featuring Thile’s (mostly) solo vocals. After the first verse-chorus, there is a lovely, sensitive violin solo. The transition between this much slower, softer portion of the song and the wilder stuff before it happens via a nice, long, drowning reverb tail. But, I am not sure why this isn’t a separate piece altogether.

Another standout track is “I Blew It Off.” This one is probably the most “radio friendly” of the lot. What’s great, though, is that it starts out like a Steve Reich piece (or at least something Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois). At the chorus, it breaks into a straightforward folk-rock feel. In the bridge back to the verse, the violinist (Gabe Witcher) sneaks in a great solo—his judicious use of vibrato here is perfect … I wish more fiddlers would follow suit.

Though, it’s not as windy a path as was “Familiarity,” “I Blew It Off” still packs a few surprises. Each chorus adds more vocals, simply harmonies at first, followed by some more polyphonic layering.. The changes in texture serve as nice palette cleansers throughout the song.

“My Oh My” is another great song. This one is one of the first really bluegrass-sounding moments on the album. It doesn’t start that way, though. It is only when Thile et al.’s blues-inflected vocals move into the song’s bridge that that Appalachian flavor really shows up. As before, “My Oh My” is a bit restless, the chorus calms down considerably, first supported only by Thile’s mandolin, with the others players entering at various points. The final verse is fully-orchestrated, and the vocals are full, complete with soaring falsettos. A great moment comes around 3:45. The two vocal parts dip below their ultimate note and swoop up to it, both staying perfectly in tune throughout this portamento. Impressive. The band’s use of dynamic contrast is also impressive in this piece.

True to the group’s crossover leanings, The Phosphorescent Blues includes two arrangements of pieces from the late-19th-century: a version of the Passepied from Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque and an arrangement of Scriabin’s Prélude in C minor, Op. 22, no. 2. Though I want to love the Debussy (because, really, what is not to love about Debussy?), this arrangement isn’t great. The Scriabin is a little better, but it’s nothing earth-shattering.

The album’s closing piece, “Little Lights,” is a gorgeous ballad featuring more of the now-familiar vocal harmonies. (Curiously, Thile grew up in Carlsbad, CA … maybe that is where he picked up his penchant for Beach Boy harmonies.) The song slowly builds to a rousing, sing-along, Coldplay-esque (in the best way) repeating chorus. Given the chops these guys have, it would have been easy to let this one get away from them. There is so much crescendo, both in volume and texture, that it would be a lesser-calibered band’s cue to dig in and show off; Punch Brothers stops short. The song ends even more softly than it began, which is perfect.

Conclusion

Seriously, this is an amazing album, and you really need to hear it. Force yourself, if necessary. I promise it will be worth it.

9/10

On Tuning My Bass in Fifths

Added on by Taylor Smith.

The short version

I’ve been playing with my bass tuned in fifths, an octave lower than the cello (CC-GG-D-A, from bottom to top), for about six months. This creates some challenges, but not as many as you’d think. There are also some advantages. The biggest advantage is that, at least with my instrument, it sounds much more open and direct—like a big, honkin’ cello. Like everyone else’s, my bass always sounded kind of tubby and un-violin-like. Now, it sounds really good, better than I have ever heard it. I also feel like I can play in tune with myself better … something about the overtones, I s’pose. The hardest part is that I have to think extra hard sometimes, as stuff isn’t where it has been for the last seventeen years.

Bottom line: I am really liking this change. I think it might be permanent.

The long version

For some reason, I can’t seem to just play the bass according to the way your “supposed to.” I didn’t have a proper teacher until I was eighteen (two years after I started), and we never really got into nitty-gritty technique. He was (is) a phenomenal jazz player (the guy played with Miles Davis … how much more legit can you get?), and the few lessons we had revolved more around constructing good bass lines than technique.

Then, when I got to BYU-Idaho, there wasn’t a bass teacher. I was a music major, attending on a jazz bass scholarship, but I was left high and dry without a teacher. (Despite the fact that I was required to take private lessons as a music major.) So, they stuck me with one of the best student bassist there at the time. He was a good player, but not a good teacher. It didn’t help that I had virtually no “classical” bass experience when I got there.

Finally, halfway through my sophomore year, a new cello teacher showed up, and he was fine with taking on the two or three bassists that were scraping by without a teacher. We didn’t really work out of the Simandl method, but that was, essentially, how my lessons went: no third finger below thumb-position; always keep you thumb behind your second finger; come back to first-position whenever possible … stuff like that.

The university hired an actual, for-real bass teacher the following year. He was into the Rabbath stuff (a little bit). We worked out of the George Vance repertoire. I was allowed to use my third finger once I got up to (Rabbath’s) third position (thumb at the heel of the neck). I was also “allowed” to do these pivot-shift things, which made the fingerboard feel a little more manageable.

Still, I was experimenting with all sorts of weird stuff. I stuck frets on my bass for a concert with the University Baroque Ensemble. I played in a DD-GG-D-G tuning for Cello Suite No. 1. After my recital (which was in solo tuning, as I played the Hindemith Sonata), I started playing in a “drop D” tuning most of the time.

After I graduated, moved to back to California, and was playing in the Pomona College orchestra, I decided to take the Rabbath thing a step further and bought a bent endpin. I wasn’t quite ready to go all the way and drill a new hole and all of that, though. My last bass teacher at BYU-Idaho was a German-bow guy, so that is where I ended up upon graduation. The trouble is that the whole bent-endpin thing is pretty tricky to pull off with a German bow hold. I didn’t have a French bow, so played with a French grip on my German bow for a few years (until I could afford to buy a decent French bow … and sold my German bow).

Finally, I stuck with this setup for about ten years. No more monkey business. Then, last fall, I got the crazy idea to try to play a piano/cello duet by Webern for a faculty recital at the college. And, that was really only possible if I could tune the instrument like a cello. So, I bought a set of fifths-tuning strings. Along the way, I came across Tomoya Aomori’s website, and absolutely loved the way he sounded. Obviously, a big chunk of why he sounded so amazing is because he is he, and the reason I don’t sound that good is because I am me. Still, he had some comparison videos and information that convinced me to really give this wacky thing a try.

So, since last November or so, I’ve been playing with my bass tuned in fifths. I like it. A lot. I feel like my instrument sounds better; I feel like I sound better. I don’t detest playing my bass quite as much as I used to. When given the choice, I would almost always choose to practice viol over bass. Now, I kind of like playing bass again. I always felt like (and was told, repeatedly) that I had a really good-sounding bass, but now I think it sounds better than it ever has.

Most people think that this tuning means you have to shift a lot more. My experience has been that it is only a little more, if at all. Firstly, I am now using all four fingers, instead of three, which means I have a pretty good range of notes under my fingers. Secondly, since so many bass parts are really just cello parts, they tend to “sit” better with the instrument tuned in fifths … like a cello. I also feel like I can hear myself (and my intonation) better with this setup.

Don’t get me wrong, I am still a pretty lousy bass player. Still, I am a lousy bass player that now sounds a little better than he did at this time last year, if for no other reason than the fact that his instrument sounds better.

On The Beatles' Influence

Added on by Taylor Smith.

See the following article: Billboard: Rap’s Impact Outweighs Influence of The Beatles, Says Scientific Study.

Obviously this article is really just “click bait” aimed at baby-boomers, but I must admit that I actually agree with it in part. The “scientific” methodology sounds pretty spotty to me, especially when they are attempting to “measure” something so not-very-measurable. I am, however, always interested in contrarian views on topics like this, especially ones that I think have some merit.

So, here is where I agree: I think that the Beatles get more credit than they deserve. Maybe not a lot more, but I am not sure they deserve all of the deification and praise that has been thrown at them since 1964. I also think that George Martin gets less credit than he deserves. Certainly portions of Sgt. Pepper’s, probably significant ones, are his doing. The same goes for the musique concrète and aleatoric stuff on the White Album.

Malcolm Gladwell has this whole chapter in Outliers about The Beatles’ supposed 10,000 hours of experience that accounts for their greatness. Though I don’t disagree that this preparation (I do question the math involved, however) made them better at what they did, I think this discounts the simple dumb luck of doing the right thing at the right time, of being in the right place at the right time. Especially since The Beatles’ influence has very little to do with their playing ability (what those 10,000 hours of practice would have developed), and everything to do with songwriting and record production—which, again, have a lot to do with George Martin.

There you go. Time to burn me at the stake.

Not that kind of doctor

Added on by Taylor Smith.

Oh yeah ... I passed my dissertation defense last week. No recommendations. No revisions. Done. So, I can demand that people call me “Dr. Smith” now. But, I won’t.

Album Review: The Dream Chase by Sydney Blake and The Misters

Added on by Taylor Smith.

Sydney Blake has gone through quite a few personnel and band-name changes over the past five years or so. She fronted Hedley Lamar back in 2011, went by the name Polaroids and Petrichor for a while in 2013, and performed as part of a duo called Jester James on and off around 2010 ... plus whichever ones I might have missed. In each of these incarnations, Sydney proved herself to be a talented and unique vocalist and songwriter. She has a knack for writing infectious but unpredictable melodies; her voice carries an air of cheerful naïveté (in the best way possible ... think Nina Persson from The Cardigans) which is aided by a subtle, quirky inflection in her diphthongs.

Sydney’s new band, The Misters, consists of Sydney on lead vocals and ukulele, with a guitarist and drummer as backup. The EP has quite a bit of extra instrumentation, the most charming of which might be the glockenspiel parts in “Sad Songs.” In general, the new orchestrations are well written and arranged, though the “production value” is less-than-great.

The Dream Chase is Sydney Blake and The Misters’ first CD, a self-released, five-track EP. The band released the EP back in August 2014, but I think they have full-length album due for release very soon. I have been listening to the EP off and on since last October. Initially, I listened to the album a dozen times or more within the first three or four days. As time has passed, I have “moved on,” though only because new things came along, stealing my attention away. Listening again, I still find the album as nice as I remember it being during those first few weeks.

 As I said earlier, one of Sydney Blake’s strengths is her gift for crafting memorable yet fresh melodies. There are a few great examples of this on The Dream Chase. The chorus in “Stick to the Plan” might be the best example.

 There are really two distinct sections in the chorus. The first one starts with a descending, then ascending scale set to syncopated rhythm. This is a nice, catchy melody. It “feels” like this is the song’s “hook” (which is a word a hate but it has fallen into such wide use that I feel like I have no choice any more), and it would be a great one. But, the next phrase features a very different, equally “hooky” melody. This one is more static than the first. The lyrics here, “‘Cause it feels my mind keeps me up all night,” are great, and the accompanying melody, though kind of static, is perfect. Then, just when you think Sydney has arrived at the chorus’ main melody, she jumps back to a variation on the first one, then a repeat of the second one, plus  a two-bar extension. All of this combines to make what would have been an awkward fourteen-bar phrase sound perfectly fine, great even.

Another nice surprise shows up in “Sad Songs,” where Sydney toys with some mode mixture. At the end of each verse, the song lands on a minor chord where there should be a Major chord. Put into music theory terms, she throws a iv where there should be a IV, at least according to everything before it. 

 This is a perfect example of Sydney’s talent for throwing just the right curve balls at us, but without over doing it. Plus, at least in “Sad Songs,” she keeps everything perfectly sing-a-long-able and catchy.

Though “Supernova” is clearly the EP’s strongest “single” (I think it is bit over produced), my favorites are “Sad Songs” and “Dreams” (though I do wish, so, so much, that the strings weren’t fake … especially the pizzicato stuff). “Dreams” is just a nice song with well-thought orchestration. The melodies are trite, with a lot of empty space.

As mentioned before, The Dream Chase’s weakest elements are the obviously-less-than-real orchestrations. This is especially obvious with the string parts. I think the producer, Adam Sisco, made the mistake of trying to make the strings too big, as if he had an entire symphony at his disposal. The parts are right for that, and, had he access to an orchestra, they would sound great. But, the “orchestra” comes across as kind of cheesy instead. Still, one can hardly blame the group for their ambition to fill out the band’s sound with a lush string section … I do like what Sydney /Adam did with the percussion—the glockenspiel parts in “Dreams” and “Sad Songs” are near-perfect and the chimes in “Midnight” add just the right amount of levity to the chorus.

Overall, I am thoroughly impressed with The Dream Chase. It shows so much potential and inventiveness. Sydney’s grasp of melodic writing, and her sweet, almost vibrato-less voice is just beautiful. While writing this review, I’ve listened to the EP half-a-dozen times (or more) over the course of two days, and I am not tired of it in the least. Those cute, slightly unpredictable melodies have a way of bouncing around in my head, which is something I welcome.

7.5/10